“Sixty”

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down…

“It’s Quiet Uptown” – sung by Angelica from Hamilton

When Philip died I couldn’t find the words to describe it. It was easier to just swim down. One year later I started a blog because I had so much to say. I am still a mother whose child has died. I have need to talk about him but I don’t know what I want to say. His name – I rarely say his name to anyone and that hurts. In the car, when I’m alone, I talk out loud to him. I say his name. I love him.

I still want to scream at the world my child has died as if the world would reach round and cover me with a big, fluffy blanket, tuck me in, stand guard. But it’s not about the world and that’s the good news. Because a world that won’t take me in its arms also won’t attack. I don’t think Philip’s death was something done to me. It is something that happened and not a day goes by that I don’t wrestle with it. “There’s a grace too powerful to name,” Angelica sings, the other side of the suffering. And I know this. How can I explain that through Philip’s death I have known grace? I would not have chosen to find it this way, but here I am.

Because of where Philip’s death brought me, what it taught me. For whatever I might give in to, I refuse to let it turn into bitterness. Sorrow, soft and quiet, yes. This might be grace. The depth of my love for Philip matches the depth of my grief. Something inside broke when he died, but that dark and terrible place has another side. There is truth in that depth, there is a way to light if I choose. Philip’s love – our love – is my light and comfort. Whatever comes and goes, love remains. So I turn to him and let myself feel that. That is the big fluffy blanket I long for.

I am lonely for love. As much as I feel Philip’s love, I want to rest my head on someone’s shoulder, be held. I am starving for it. There are times when my insides feel like they’re collapsing for want of pressing against someone I love, someone who loves me. Then I pull back — it’s easier to be alone, I think. I’ve seen too much. And I’m turning 60 next year — is it too late?

I’m reading a book called Sixty by Ian Brown, a diary of his 61st year, which I expected to laugh and commiserate with. Instead I’m horrified. Brown talks of the world having no use for the aging — but what world? Surely in his personal world his friends and family have plenty of use for him. Brown is an active guy. He bikes, hikes, skis, goes kayaking. But he talks of his aches and pains, that come with aging and maybe in part from the wear and tear of exercising. Maybe I’ve no aches and pains because I don’t exercise. This bothers me because I used to all the time, and for years now I’ve refused to move. I’m getting older and think I should take long walks, but I cannot force myself.

Brown seems to be making 60 define his life. I don’t think about it that way — I think I’ll define 60. I don’t feel so much older than those around me, including the young woman my daughter’s age whom I work with. I look good, I feel good, I have a lot of energy, all things Brown complains about. He even questions the way he dresses, while I make an art of it. That’s what scares me about the book. I work to not let the world define me. Why should age matter in terms of what the world expects of me? Yes, things change. There are adjustments coming at me that I can’t yet fathom. But to spend a year looking at my life through the lens of my age is nuts.

It’s not that I’m not aware of my age, or that I never think about it. I changed jobs three months ago. My boss is handsome. Classically tall, dark, and good-looking. He’s the kind of guy I look up on the internet so I can show my friends what he looks like and watch them swoon. The kind of guy I always considered out of my league. Two weeks ago he threw himself a fiftieth birthday bash in a house on a lake, which included fireworks that spun glittering down from the sky around us. Yes, around us. Some people ran for cover. His age, his handsomeness, makes me think I’m getting old. Sure, he is, too, but at 59, 50 feels young, and he seems to have the world by the balls. And we all know men my age are looking down the decades for women which leaves me with…

Oh, bullshit. So what if men, in fact, look for younger women? That’s about getting laid. I’ve no problem with getting laid (except for the problem of no partner), but I want something more than sex, the thing that makes the sex mean something. Not that I do anything about it. In fact, I pointedly do nothing about it, the way I stay home so much. The only guys I meet are the ones in the current TV series I’m into. And we know where those relationships lead.

Philip’s been spared the pain of this life. Yes, you say, but he also misses the beauty and wonder. Except lately those are just words to me because there’s a lot more hurt than anything else. And the constant work of trying to see the other side of the hurt is exhausting. This doesn’t mean I think he’s better off dead. Beauty and wonder come from inside. Philip had it. He was it. He took it when he died, and it’s my work to remind myself that no, he really didn’t.

© 2017 Denise Smyth

Forgotten

When my kids were little I used to tell them life isn’t fair, but we try to be. Life isn’t fair or unfair – it just is. We’re the ones who decide what life is by the way we think about it. We’re all going to die. What’s unfair about that? I mean, what if no one died? On the simplest level, we wouldn’t fit on the planet. Everything goes in cycles, everything changes, all things end. It’s more helpful to observe the way life is than to decide how it should be. So many people have said to me that Philip shouldn’t have died. Really? How can anyone know that? What matters “should?” That he died is my sorrow, but I can’t see the bigger picture we’re all part of. I want him to come home, but “shoulds” are not for me. He has died and I have to live with it. It’s not fair or unfair.

As for good-bye – there are things that do not have “closure.” The very idea doesn’t make sense. If the definition of closure is to bring to an end, how can you possibly have “closure” when someone you love dies? I think the yearning for closure is wanting the pain to stop. But as long as you love, you’re vulnerable to pain. Closure and acceptance are different. Acceptance is when you stop fighting what’s so – that’s all. It doesn’t mean you’re happy about it. And “moving on.” What’s that supposed to mean? I’ve said a million times, you don’t move on, you live with. I will never “move on” from Philip’s death. I don’t live in wild, crazy grief any more, but I’ve a deep, abiding sorrow. It’s quiet, and it’s always there. But that’s the other side of my love for my son. I can’t get rid of one without the other.

Facing death is our biggest challenge, and we do everything we can to avoid it. I don’t think we even realize what we do – go to the gym, stay in shape, wear the right clothes…what is it all for? It’s to prolong life, thereby avoiding death. I get just as caught up in it as anyone. Death is terrifying because we don’t know what it is. When someone we love dies it affects us deeply and irrevocably. You change a little every time. Grief doesn’t go away any more than love goes away.

Death is the last and biggest change. All the changes we go through in life can help prepare us if we stop resisting them. Every time we release an emotion, release a fear, we’re getting ready for death.

What would life be without death? What would make us stop and think and try to make sense of life if there was no death? Death shows us what’s important, time makes us forget. I have forgotten. I am too much in the world these days, too much at the whim of what’s happening instead of letting it be. My new job is a challenge. And instead of remembering I’m competent, I’m riddled with anxiety. I forget to eat because that’s what I do when I’m anxious. And if I think of eating, my throat closes down.

Such old behavior. I can’t control the work that’s thrown at me, but I can control what I eat. Not eating feels powerful – a need that I’ve turned from. And by the end of my work day, when I know I should eat something before I go home, I’ll pick on my salad or eat slow spoonfuls of yogurt. My upsets always tie into food. For years I had bulimia. On and off, but when I was on, I went full blast. When Philip died, first I whittled my 5’4″ self down to 100 lbs. And when I could no longer stand the hunger, I started eating and throwing up. Punishing myself, because when something goes wrong, that’s what I do. I did it until the violence of what I was doing to my body started to scare me. I’d shove my finger down my parted throat and strain so hard my insides felt like they were coming out the other end. I had to rid myself of what felt wrong and dirty. Until my eyes were bloodshot and my head was throbbing . Until my body felt as empty as my life did.

In the years following Philip’s death I began to see what was important. I understood – no, I knew – that whatever it was, I could put space between me and it. Like if I took a new job, my real work was not Excel spreadsheets and vendor payments. It was the way I treated what I was doing. Every situation is an opportunity to make meaning, to learn how to love. And what are we here for if not to learn how to love? How, exactly, does Excel teach love? It doesn’t. It’s what I make of it. If I remember that what I’m doing matters to my boss, if I work to give him what he needs, if I do it with care and respect, that, right there, is love. Because love is not merely a feeling, it’s a state of being.

But I’ve been panicking a lot, feeling like what I do isn’t good enough, waiting to be exposed. Drama, drama, drama. I can’t seem to get myself out of it. Then I go home and hibernate. I don’t know how to make a life I could enjoy. I would say the biggest reason is the nasty, nattering voice in my head that I goddamn can’t stop listening to.

The anxiety I feel at work turns into helplessness when I go home. I want to move but the thought overwhelms me. I want to be inside but I think I should be out. Sometimes it’s like I’m just waiting to die because what’s it for, anyway. I have forgotten. When Philip died I was plunged into a life I couldn’t scramble out of. Eventually I began to work with the void and understood why it’s called “fertile.” But my heart’s closed along the way. Along with that writing’s been tough. I can’t write when I’m shut down.

More on that later…

© 2017 Denise Smyth

“In Memory”

I watched “Outlander” recently. (SPOILER ALERT: if you’re planning on watching it, you might not want to read the next few paragraphs.) The protagonists are Claire and Jaime, who are deeply in love. At one point, the story jumps forward twenty years and we see Claire visiting Jamie’s grave. She’d just come from the wake of a reverend she’d known for many years. At the wake was a young man the reverend had taken in as a child and raised and who was grieving the reverend. He sat down to talk to Claire. “How do you say good-bye?” he asked. “I don’t know,” she answered.

Claire sat at the grave for a while. For twenty years she’d been missing Jaime. She talked to him, then told him she was going to say something she’s never said before. And what she said was,” Good-bye.”

Fuck that.

Philip once told me he was in the place of no good-byes. Why would anyone want to say good-bye to someone they love? It’s bad enough they’re dead. But you still love them and so can have a relationship with them. Not the one you want, but the one you have. To say “good-bye” is to cut off. I don’t believe one can really say “good-bye” to someone they love deeply. And a child? Can one really say that to their child? Because when someone you love dies, when your child dies, your life changes irrevocably. You can go back to your job and back to the gym and continue doing whatever you were doing before death paid a visit. But you’ve changed, you feel the loss hovering always in the background.

It is not your child you say good-bye to, it is not your child you let go of. What you stop resisting is the fact of what death has taken from you, all the pain that it makes you feel. Not at first, not all at once. But grief opens up spaces within us. Those spaces make us vulnerable not only to heartbreak, but to joy. Joy seems to have no place here. But the joy of the love between you and your child remains. Nothing, not even death, can take that away.

Would that I pay attention to my words.

“In Memory.” Words I want to run from. They, along with “Rest in Peace,” are some of the most devastatingly sad words I know. Last week, Thursday, February 23rd, was the fifth anniversary of Philip’s death. My brother and sister-in-law, who never forget, made a donation to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in memory of him. Those two words were on the front of the card that came to tell me. “In Memory.” No, I want to cry out. He’s not just a memory, he’s more than that. But is he? Philip is round me. He talks to me, comforts me, sends me signs every day. I try to stay there, in that grace. But then there’s the other side, the fact of sight and touch, the conversations, all the things I miss because he isn’t here the way I want him to be.

Fighting that is useless. I know this. I don’t blame anyone for Philip’s death, I don’t think “God” did this. God doesn’t meddle in people’s lives, but he sure makes a good scapegoat. I don’t fret that there’s something I could have done, if only I… There wasn’t anything I could have done. Philip’s death is something that happened to us and we are in this together. Wishing things were otherwise is a waste of time, time that could be spent in life, life that feels like forever without Philip here but will feel like a blip when I face my own death. Where did it all go, I will wonder. Am I ready? It won’t matter. Ready or not, when it’s time, it’s time. Death is the one certainty in life.

This anniversary was particularly difficult. I didn’t go to work. I spent the morning with Natalie and the rest of the day with Kirsten. But I could take no comfort, in spite of all the ways Kirsten took care of me, in spite of the fact that people reached out to say they cared. My boss, who I’ve known for two and a half weeks, reached out to me. Phil called me first thing in the morning. I could have cried. What would it be like, I wonder, if we were still together, if I had him to talk to about Philip because he is his father, because we were a family. I envy people who have each other when tragedy strikes. But we live with the choices we make, fantasies notwithstanding. Tragedies tear people apart probably as often as they bring them together.

Still, I’m lonely. I’m lonely for Philip, lonely in my grief for him. My mind goes to terrible places. It’s hard to talk about. I had a difficult childhood. For so long I wished I was dead – what other way was there to stop the pain? I tried drugs and alcohol but all that did was land me in AA. Somewhere along the line I lost any appreciation I might have had for being alive. I have not recovered. When I see my daughter, my heart springs open. She is my love. But when she’s not here, it’s almost like she doesn’t exist. When she leaves I’m back to my lonely world, the one I’ve created in my head. And Thursday, no matter who was around or who reached out, I couldn’t take it in. There was no place I wanted to be. And this is what I meant about it being hard to talk about – so often I just don’t want to be here, to be part of this. So often I feel living is hard and sorrowful more than anything else. There are people who are sick and dying and scared, and here I am, alive and well, often wishing I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. What regrets am I going to have when it’s my time to die?

Last Thursday I cried to be where Philip was, so great was my grief. I haven’t cried in a long time. I’ve felt myself going dead these last months rather than feel anything that hurts. But I can’t cut off one part of myself without affecting the whole. I can’t keep out pain without keeping out peace.

© 2017 Denise Smyth

The Leap

“Leap and the net will appear.”
John Burroughs

Philip’s phone line is still active. For $10 a month we get to call his phone and hear his voicemail voice. The automated  lady announces him, so all he says is his name, “Phil Smyth.” It doesn’t even sound like him. He’d started calling himself “Phil.” But he will ever be Philip to me.

His mailbox is full. I called Verizon once. “My son has died,” I cried. “I want to hear his messages.” The woman was kind. You need his phone, she told me. Call back when you have it and we’ll change the password so you can get into his phone and retrieve his messages.

I talked to Phil about it. He thought I was nuts, was reluctant to give me the phone, I didn’t push it. But now I want it. I want to do this. I want to read his texts, I want to hear what messages people left him. I don’t care if it tears me apart. These last months I’ve been so removed, so out of touch with what I feel about Philip that I’d like to be ripped open. I’d like to see if there’s something more to me than this surface life I feel I’m living.

I’ve talked about grief being a spiral, not a straight line where you start to get “better” and continue along. Grief expands and contracts, triggered by memory, triggered by love. And I’ve spiraled to the outer edges, to a place where I no longer try to make sense of Philip’s death or my life. I’m not stepping back, I make things too real, get too caught up. I am not steady. Tune into me and I’m comforted. Say something contrary and I make myself small as I can. Less of a moving target, less of me to feel pain.

I don’t write much because I have nothing to say. At least, that’s what I feel like. What am I to talk about? Can I keep telling you about Philip? I make no sense of his death now. I cry, I’m angry, I’m disconnected. Disconnected is the worst. I’d rather weep until my eyeballs fall out than be disconnected. Didn’t I say I wanted to make meaning, that what anything  meant was up to me? Didn’t I write reams about “Accept it, Leave it, Change it?” Wasn’t I in touch with the grace that is the other side of death? At least for a moment? Didn’t I believe?

I am a mother whose son has died. Every day I feel that. I don’t think about it in any useful way. I feel about it, feelings that shift with the wind. Diminished. Resigned. Angry. Bitter. Despair. Helpless. Disconnected. Then I look at his portrait for a while and know how deeply I love him and I weep.

I start a new job tomorrow. During the interview I told them Philip died. I don’t know why I said it – what did that have to do with the job? It didn’t. It had to do with me. That he died is an essential fact of my life and if I’m going to spend time with people, they have to know. That’s why I told them.

I decided months ago it was time for a new job. What angst over my resume, in spite of the fact that I had two friends willing to help. I can’t do it, I thought. Because I don’t know how to write about myself, because I don’t have a degree, because I think the world is my enemy and anyone interviewing me will shake their head and dismiss me. Because that’s the way my crazy brain works even though none of that’s true. And I have a resume – it just needed to be updated. Back in 2011 when I was looking for a job, I paid someone $500 to write my resume. She also wrote my LinkedIn profile, several cover letters, went over job-hunting strategies. I’ll put it in her hands again, I thought. Let her do what I can’t.

When I called her I found out she doesn’t update resumes. She takes you through the whole spiel for $1500. When I told her that was too expensive, she referred me to someone who charges less. For a mere $700 I could have a new resume.

I actually considered it. I wanted to pay to get this burden off me. She’ll make look good, I thought. I need someone to make me look good because I am not good at all.

God I’m sick of myself. At least, that side of myself. Not sick enough to be rid of it, though.

For several months I had anxiety about my resume. I’ll do it over Thanksgiving weekend, I said. I didn’t. I’ll do it over Christmas vacation, I said. The pressure was on. Work was getting difficult and with the new year coming I wanted to make a new start. I might  have been anxious about the resume, but the need to leave was stronger. Finally, I did it.

During my Christmas vacation I went to Kirsten’s house. Why don’t you google resumes, she suggested. Duh. So I googled exactly what I am – Construction Administrative Assistant. And there it was – a whole resume full of bullet points that said what I did more elegantly than I could have on my own. With Kirsten’s help I wrote my resume, wrote a cover letter and found a job ad on Craig’s List for an Administrative Assistant for a construction company.

After months of agonizing over all this, here’s what happened: Sunday I send the resume. Monday I get the call. Tuesday I get the interview. Wednesday I get the job.

Am I not blessed? How do I not get this?

Lately I’ve turned Philip’s death into a weapon against myself. I am damaged goods. I am angry I have to be this mom. I’m resentful because life goes on and it doesn’t care about Philip’s death. And that is not about grief as much as it’s about the way I have of talking to myself when I’m not vigilant. Let me be the voice in your head, Philip tells me. And if I did, none of this is what I’d be hearing.

I need to hold close the fact that everything passes. Life is in motion, ever changing. Every change is a little death. It’s also a chance to let go, to leap into the great unknown. One day I will pass, too, take the greatest leap of all. And when my time comes will I feel I wasted it in apathy, in anger? My life with Philip is forever changed – we will never be the way we were, but we are something different. His presence is as strong as ever – when I pay attention. You’d think I’d pay attention because that’s when I feel closest to him, this child that I need as much as I need air and food and water.

I no longer can live with his body, but I certainly can live in his love.

© 2017 Denise Smyth

The Bridge

“But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

I am between those lands and I feel like nothing’s happening but maybe something is going on and I need to be patient. I am missing Philip and that missing is tinged with hopelessness. He is not coming home. I am a mother whose child has died. It’s been sickening me again – whatever’s spinning around my gut makes its way to my chest and arms and just for a moment I think I’m going to fall down, that I can’t bear this.

But then there’s Philip, all around me, always all around me. I just have to pay attention. There isn’t a day that goes by that he isn’t nudging me. How graced am I? And how my life has opened up since he died. I left the hellish job I was at, and now work at a place I like to go to (most of the time). I have more people in my life than I had before. I finally started to write, and to stay with it. So many years – decades – I had fits and starts with writing. And years that I wanted to start a blog but was afraid. What could I possibly have to say? And if I had something to say, what made me think I could write it in a way that would make anyone want to read it?

Philip said, “let me be the voice in your head.” Because his is the voice of love. He would never talk to me the way I talk to myself, the way I learned from my mother. My mother, who cannot help who she is. I grew up nursing on her rages instead of her love. Witness to her preference for my brother, her disdain for me. And so hurt, angry and helpless as I was – as any child would be – I took my first drink at 11 and thought I found what I was looking for. Something to make me feel nothing because I’d rather feel nothing than feel what it felt like to be alive.

I have been remembering more often to replace that voice with Philip’s. I bought prayer beads to help. Not because I want to pray with them, but because they help me pay attention. They are beautiful copper beads flecked with gold, and have silver tassels They feel cool and weighty in my hands. I carry them around and every time I touch them I think, “Let Philip be the voice in my head.”

But that bridge Wilder talks of – I can’t find it. My heart’s not open. Back and forth I go between the fact that Philip’s died and the fact of how he lets me know he’s still here. What does his death mean in my life, what besides loss in a way I have never known? May I never know it again.

It’s such an odd way to live, this between-ness.  So much thinking going on here, so much “assessment” of my situation. Where does it get me? At the moment it feels easier to let it all go and just suffer. Then I can’t feel the love that comes at me from many different directions. Feeling it is also giving it – and what are we here for, if not to learn that?

How do I stop reacting like the small hurt child I was? I needed to be loved – I am never going to get what I needed back then, so it’s up to me to find what I need now. All I have to do, really, is look to my life, look to the people who matter, and let myself take it all in. And I take that little child I was and imagine myself at three, with my too-short bangs, wavy brown hair, big hazel eyes, pale yellow chiffon party dress, black patent leather shoes, finger in my mouth, being held by Philip. I imagine it because that is what it means to know love. That is what he’s trying to give me.

Love is not like the things of this world. It is not a transaction. It doesn’t get won, it doesn’t get lost. And it’s not diminished by giving. If I give it, I have it. It starts with me. With my ability to recognize that life is best lived in love. When do I feel peace? When I’m with love. Like I am with Natalie and Philip. With Ed. With the women in my life, old and new. With the quilts I’ve made and the cakes I’ve baked. These are works of love.

I am not speaking of what passes for “falling in love” which involves a significant other and in time is often revealed to be something very different. The love I’m speaking of is a state of being. And we desire to express that love. We think we need an object. We don’t. It’s true that people, animals, beaches and sunsets inspire us. Objects can loosen our sore and jaded hearts and let love through the cracks. If we can feel it, then we have it. But I have to ask – where does love go when nothing inspires me? When I feel alone? When nothing matters and I sit on my couch, look at Philip’s portrait and cry for want of him. It’s not love that’s moved, it’s me.

The bridge is love. That simple. So why is it so hard? I have two ways of thinking about Philip. One feels like I lean back in his love, one feels like I look ahead and see him gone. Lately I’m transfixed by what’s ahead, which means I’m imagining all the ways it stuns me that Philip won’t be here. Not in the way I want him to. Lately I’m blowing off his attention and retreating into what it feels like to have had him yanked from me, put into a navy blue suit in a coffin, then sent to a crematorium to spend two hours in a cremation container at 900 degrees so that he could be returned to me as a bunch of grey ash and bone fragments.

And guess what? Life kept on going. People brushed their teeth and straightened their ties and chose the right shoes to match their outfits and I did not understand. I knew there was so much more going on, things that arent’ seen and so feel lost. They are not lost. We who lose those we love walk differently. We cannot live in the world the same way, though we seem to. We are not even sure we want to be part of this world, but the reality is we are. So we have to find a way to bridge the gap. Or we can live in rage and hate, in despair, for what was “done” to us, when really, nothing at all was done to us. People’s dying is not done to us. What to do with that? To think about death we must move beyond vanity. Because all the money we make, all the things we buy, all the exercise we do and all the botox we shoot is not going to change the fact of death. We will die and if we’ve any hope of leaving this world without rage and fear, now is the time to work toward that. Philip once told me that I might think I want to die, but I am not ready. The way I live is the way I will die – if I live in fear, so will I die. There’s no magic that will make dying okay if living never felt the same. And I have much to do to make living feel the same.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

Patience is All

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

I don’t know what’s going on with me. Besides feeling like I “can’t” write, I don’t want to go out. Yet after I rush home – from work, from the salon, from Whole Foods – I don’t want to be where I am. My heart is not open. I cannot access what’s essential. And I have this dreaded feeling again – or maybe not again, there are differences – this dreaded feeling of being a mother who’s lost her child. And anything I can “do” about this has nothing to do with action, but with the way I am with my grief.

It’s been suggested that I take a break from reading the emails I’ve packed in my binders. I have read from 1996 through summer of 2002. Eleven years to go. It’s not a race, much as I’m greedy in wanting to read it all. Philip and Natalie are in those pages, and it’s all real. There’s me going to college part time, on fire to learn. Writing to Ed about Shakespeare and poetry and myth. I wanted so much then – to exercise my intellect which I’d felt rotting in my head for lack of stimulation. I went for long walks and craved solitude. What happened to me? Now, If I’m not at work, if I’m not with someone – and I mostly am not – I’m sad. I don’t want to go out, much less go for a walk. I have more solitude than I know what to do with.

I think I’m lonely, which is hard and embarrassing to admit. I say “I think” because my idea of what loneliness is is that you sit around and wish there were people around to fill the hole. I don’t feel it that way. But maybe feeling sad, longing for something I can’t put words on, feeling restless and unsure, maybe that’s what lonely is. Lonely is a terrible secret I carry. It feels like a character flaw instead of a result of choices I’ve made.

I still have trouble connecting the dots between what I do and what I feel and I don’t think I appreciate what immersing myself in the past has done to me. I am overwhelmed and when there’s that much pain I shut it down. Go stupid. I’ve flatlined and I don’t know what I can do to change this.

I cannot figure out what to do with myself. I read, I write when I can, I get lost in TV. I will go somewhere if I’m invited, but on my own I just give up. Maybe because I’m trying with my head instead of my heart and there are some things that all the thinking about in the world won’t fix. But nothing calls out to me, I’ve no desire to be anywhere. Though that’s not entirely true. Kirsten and I have dinner most every Sunday, and during those hours I know pleasure.

In an effort to get myself up and out, I signed up for a series of four meditation classes held at Van Vleck House and Gardens in Montclair. Van Vleck is a nonprofit that used to be a private estate. The house looks like an Italian villa, with its cement pillars and lovely arched windows. The grounds are beautifully landscaped, with a large garden out back beyond the stone patio. Van Vleck hosts community events, and is open to the public, free of charge, year round.

Yet soon as I commit to anything, I don’t want to do it. I couldn’t force myself to go to the first class. I went to the second, but left there with a bad feeling. No, I went with a bad feeling and the class could do nothing to assuage that. John, the instructor, talked to us about meditation and then talked us through meditation. His rich voice resonates and relaxes – it was made for this. John is also my grief counselor. Once when I went to see him he did a meditation with me. I closed my eyes and went where his voice took me. When it was over I thought it had lasted for about 15 minutes. No, he said. It’d been 45.

In class, we sat and meditated, then we walked around the garden and meditated. Afterward, people talked about their experience. They were grateful, they felt good. I didn’t understand. They talked of how lovely the garden smelled, while I’d  noticed an odor when we first went out, something animal and vaguely skunky. Those who walked outside barefoot – like I did – talked of smooth grass and cool, earthy patches of dirt. I went into that garden careful and unsure, afraid of squishing bugs or stepping in anything the birds might’ve left behind.  The people that spoke in class seemed from another world.  What could I say to make this real for me, I wondered? What would I really, really want to say?

I didn’t know. How is it that even if I’m sitting and thinking, even if I have time to form sentences before I have to say them, I cannot know what I want to say? It seemed wrong not to abide in the spirit of peace and love that room was hell bent on creating. Wrapped in grief and anxiety, I was angry that I felt an outsider, and ashamed that someone might notice.

Maybe patience is all. And kindness. I’ve not been very kind to myself. I talk to myself the way my mother talked to me, abusive and humiliating. It’s a deep groove that I only entrench myself in when I let her wash over me. The only power she has is what I give her. And I don’t mean my mother who’s out there in the world. I am slowly learning how to handle her, and at 83, she has become careful with me. I mean the mother I’ve internalized. Her voice is relentless.

Seems time to recognize the way I talk to myself and change the conversation.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

Writer’s Block

One of the things that I hoped would come out of this blog was a memoir. I was 150 pages into one about a particular year in my life when Philip died. After that, I couldn’t write for a year. When I finally felt ready to, it was not my memoir that interested me, it was Philip’s death. So I started my blog, and it’s been three years since I did so.

The last few months have been a transition. I didn’t know what was going on. It was getting more difficult to write the blog – I didn’t know what I wanted to say. And I’d been thinking of starting the memoir but really wasn’t motivated. Since what I do is assume everything is my fault, I was sure I was just running out of things to say on the blog and too unskilled to think about starting a memoir.

Some time last year I began getting emails from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. They have an adult writing program that runs year round. And they have classes on Saturdays, which is what I’m looking for because if I have to shlep in my car to Bronxville or take the bus to NY to see what’s offered there, I don’t want to do it after a day at work. When I lived in Brooklyn it was a short subway ride into Manhattan. And if the train you were on didn’t take you exactly where you wanted to go, you got off and took another one that did. And you could do it 24/7.

Here in NJ, not so. First off, for me to even get to the train requires transportation. And since you can’t park anywhere around a train station without an annual parking permit (which, in Montclair, has a five year waiting list), you have to call a car service or get yourself Uber-ed there. The train leaves you at Penn Station, and if you’re not in reasonable walking distance from 34th street, you have to get on yet another train. Or a bus, or a taxi.

There are also buses to the city, and since they’re in walking distance from where I live, that’s how I get to Manhattan. But unless I’m leaving at some odd hour, that forty minute ride is at least doubled. After 18 years of living here, I still resent the fact that I’m at the mercy of the DeCamp Bus Schedule, which runs buses only hourly after rush hour and stops all service sometime around midnight.

I’ve looked into writing classes at The New School , 92nd Street Y and Gotham. Their adult education classes are on weeknights or weekday afternoons. Which leaves me with Sarah Lawrence – they’re just over the George Washington Bridge which means that with no traffic (if there ever is such a thing where the George Washington Bridge is concerned)  I could be there in about half an hour. While driving gives me more control over what time I come and go, I balk at going over that menacing truck-filled bridge with its upper level and lower level and exits from either side. And with eight lanes to choose from you’d better know which side the exit is on or you’re screwed, GPS or not.

There must be something deeper than that holding me back. I’ve managed to begin the memoir, but writing’s gotten terribly difficult, like it used to be before Philip died. Much as I wanted to write, I’d drag myself to my computer every time I decided to. And often I stared, or came out with stilted sentences. And I don’t think this is uncommon, not at all. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” Samuel Johnson said.

Count me among the blockheads.

I’m suffering writer’s block. After Philip died I was so split open that the words spilled out on their own. There wasn’t anything to stop them and I thought that’s how it would remain. But that same vulnerability is turning on me now – I’m struggling with the memoir, struggling with the blog. But I can’t just throw my hands up in the air and cry “writer’s block!” I can’t just wait for it to pass. Because it’s not an “it,” a separate entity that’s been tossed my way. It’s an internal struggle between my ego, which has decided I’m to write every day and I’m to write in an orderly manner and I’m to sit at my desk until this memoir is finished, no matter how many years it takes, and my unconscious, which in the face of my ego’s dictatorship says fuck you.

What is that, “my unconscious?” What do I mean when I say that? Let’s call it spirit, the wellspring of creativity. This “deeper” me is overwhelmed by the personality I’ve constructed to protect it. The blog has simply been my spirit breaking free, telling my stories, trying to understand this thing called My Life. Trying, one word at a time, to live with Philip’s death. There’s a freedom with the blog – it’s mine. I own it. It gets to be what I want it to be. I work it, but it’s to my satisfaction, no one else’s. No editor cutting sentences, no teacher telling me there’s too many words there and not enough here.

But then I started to write the memoir and I froze. I worry about “setting scenes” and “showing instead of telling.” I worry about how to tell the story to the point that I no longer know how to. I push sentences around instead of having them flow. I feel like what I’m writing isn’t even good enough to be a shitty first draft.

And I’m confused. How do I help myself write? I’ve set my desk up to be where I write. I have a desk calendar where I keep track of my writing time. I count the number of hours I write weekly. I note what I want to write the next day so I don’t have to think about where to start. I’ve tried to make a routine. Write every day, even if it’s for ten minutes. Keep a process log where I write about what I’m going through as I keep working. Read a book about writing every day, read a memoir every day.

If I don’t make rules, how do I get myself to write? If I do make rules, I’m too uptight to write.

The struggle with writing has little to do with writing. It’s about unfinished business, business I thought was done once Philip died. His death so overwhelmed I couldn’t see how anything – as long as Natalie was okay – could matter enough to bother me again. But once I sat down and decided to be “serious” about writing and imposed my routine I split in two. Because “impose” is just that – something to be borne, endured, obeyed, something set by authority. And authority means my wicked witch of a mother whose domineering, sneering, angry voice still runs my life more than I care to admit.

And who I’m not yet ready to write about because I lose my footing when I try to.                                                                                                                                                     

©2016 Denise Smyth

I Have What I Give

Tuesday morning two men were standing next to my car discussing the parking situation, and I joined in. I live in a garden apartment and you need a pass to park overnight on the street. Each apartment is allowed one pass. The complex hired a towing company that randomly comes to check cars, and your car will get towed if you don’t have a pass hanging from your rear view mirror. One of the men was complaining that he came home late one night, couldn’t find a parking spot, noticed there were cars without passes, mentioning a red Volkswagen that was there every night. He’d called the towing company, who said they were too busy to come. So he parked around the corner and wound up getting a ticket because next day it was alternate side of the street parking and he didn’t know.

“You mean we can call the towing company ourselves? “ I asked.

“Of course,” he answered.

So I could call the towing company if I notice anyone without a pass, which I never do because I’d never thought to look. I could go out late, take Zoe for a walk, check for passes and get the sons of bitches who don’t belong there towed. And I had it in for that shiny red Volkswagen – I’d been seeing that car a lot lately, parked near mine. I was going after it.

There is such satisfaction in watching somebody else get blamed and take the consequences. Because if s/he got punished, I was absolved. And that’s what we do in this world, we blame others so that we can momentarily feel better about ourselves.

The Mississippi House wants to allow prisoners to be executed by a firing squad if lethal injection is too expensive. Sounds barbaric, no? Because even if we think the death penalty is the right way to deal with the worst of the worst, we think it should be hidden. The process is medicalized to hide the violent act that it is.

But I bet if Mississippi had a firing squad and invited the public, it would be standing room only.

No, I didn’t go checking cars for passes and I didn’t call the towing company. I might feel mean but I don’t act it. But every time I saw that bright little car I wanted vengeance. Except when I saw it today. Because the culprit who was driving turned out to be a human being, one who smiled at me when she made a u-turn near where I was walking Zoe. And when I walked past her as she parked, I decided to lie.

“Excuse me,” I said when she got out of the car. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

She swept the pageboy-bangs out of her eyes and said, sure. I asked her if she lived here. She said she had since February. I asked her if she had a parking pass and she didn’t know what I was talking about. I told her about the man wanting to have her car towed, and how I thought that was mean-spirited because at that moment I did think it was mean-spirited. I told her the rules, no parking without a pass between 9:00pm – 6:00am, and that if you got towed, it cost about $500 to get your car back. None of this had been explained to her. How she missed the large white signs with serious red lettering that are all over the complex and that explain all this, I do not know. She told me that last week she saw five cars get towed and she’d had no idea why. I didn’t know why her car wasn’t number six but I didn’t ask.

Me having her car towed would have been an act of quiet violence. Imagine waking up for work, not seeing your car and getting a little dizzy because you were sure where you parked it but maybe there was something you were missing. Maybe if you thought back and thought hard you could remember something that would tell you exactly where your car was.

You call the police, find out your car’s been towed because of something that management never warned you about. You have to get yourself to the towing company, pay the fine and try to come back to world but you can’t because you’re confused and angry and impotent and on top of it, you’re late for work.

Why can’t I remember the phantoms I get angry at – like other drivers – are people. Why is it always that other people are traffic? Why can’t I remember it feels better to be kind? The paradox is I have what I give. When I’m angry I’m the one who suffers. The driver in front of me who’s going 45 in a 50mph zone is oblivious to the rage I feel because I want to go faster. It doesn’t matter that it’s a speed limit, not a minimum speed. Nor does it matter that I’m rushing for rushing’s shake, not because I’m late for anything.

But when I’m kind I am soothed. Like when I stop to let someone turn in front of me because the traffic’s heavy. I see the tension leave their face as they wave in thanks. Their gratitude and relief are my own.

I miss Philip’s little kindnesses. When he was a kid he’d call because Sandy had no money to get home and no parent who would come to the rescue. Or because Mark didn’t realize he didn’t have enough money to pay for the dessert he ordered at the cafe they hung out in. I gave Philip money to take care of them because it pained me that there were kids out there whose parents were absent. But once I reminded him he was being generous with my money and like it or not, he couldn’t save the world.

I didn’t trust these kids that I didn’t know. Maybe this is how they live, taking advantage when they could. Maybe they were laughing because they got over on me and Philip. But maybe that’s just the way I look at things. Maybe Philip’s way was something for me to think about – if someone’s in need, you help. Was that it? Or did he just want them to like him? Or did he like the power of coming to the rescue? Or all of the above? And I was about to say that I’ll never know, but that’s not true. If it’s that important to me I can still talk to him about it. Not in the way I want to, but in the way that is so.

There was a price I paid to be a dependable mom, and I paid it gladly. I was the one who got called when someone needed to be picked up or dropped off. I was the one Philip called when he needed to be at the airport at 5:00 in the morning to fly to a fencing meet. I was the one who took the kids to Six Flags every year, who took 12-year-old Natalie and three of her friends to Disneyland and then to Santa Monica, the other parents asking, Are you sure you want to do this?

I was sure. It was my deep need I was trying to fill by taking care of what my children needed. It was my longing to be taken care of that made me so quick to care for them. It was my wanting to be loved that made me love them so hard.

And it was my need to find my way home that made me want to be home for them.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

On Writing

I thought I could write. Because I sit here and write posts that go wherever I want them to and I’ve space around them when I do it. I can’t write when I can’t breathe and I can’t breathe when there are these vicious, nagging, condescending voices in my head. As I’ve been writing the blog, I’ve kept them at bay. But I think they were just waiting.

I decided to take a local class in memoir writing. The teacher, L, came highly recommended. And so it got me started – not only the writing, but organizing notes and figuring out the order of the chapters, thinking about what this memoir is about. It is not about Philip’s death, though certainly that’s what drives it. It’s my story, it’s about me going through this rather than around it. And I have much to discover about all of it.

Here is what I’ve learned, and not from class. Writing is intensely personal. It takes a long time. If I write with the sole aim of being published my work will not ripen. I will be writing under stress. I will have the potential publisher’s voice in my head as he laughs at me, “You? Published? Ha ha ha ha. Next.”

The writing is the discovering. It’s the work. And writing a memoir is not writing a blog. There is much more to think about. Like scenes need to be set, I have to consider if each sentence is supporting what I’m trying to say, and I have to have some kind of order. This is challenging. I’m telling Philip’s story and my story and they have to flow into each other.

What I find comfort in is that this is not a race. This is unearthing. For instance, I started to write something about my mother at the wake, and I got so sick with rage and need that I had to stop. I couldn’t write the scene any more. I don’t know how to write the scene. But how much sense does that make? Writing reflects life. My feelings for my mother are twisted and are no where near the peace I need to take a step back as I write. So I turned to a different section and worked there. I’ll get back to my mother when I’m ready.

I know that this book is going to turn into what it’s going to turn into. And I will be surprised.

As for the writing class – it has helped, but it’s also thrown me. It’s a workshop. We read and we critique each other’s work. We can bring up to five pages. We can bring no pages. It’s up to us.

Me, I can’t imagine not reading aloud. I learned that I have little patience for workshops. With two or three people, maybe. Then you can slow it down and concentrate. We have as much as seven people reading and it’s just too much for me. I can’t listen to so many different writers – by the fourth one I’m losing concentration.

But the worst of it is that it’s become a drama, and much as I see it, I can’t help it. L has become my mother, sneering at me because nothing I do is good enough. (No, L. doesn’t sneer. Nor does she discourage. Really.) It’s a drama because I’ve taken a situation and written my story over it. And even though I see this, it’s affecting my writing. It’s a big deal for me to read in front of a group like that. I want to be good, I want to impress, I’m afraid I suck. That I’m boring. Right there that’s going to throw my writing off. As far as the memoir, the timing is off. If I’d started this class with a chunk of the memoir in progress, then it would have been a matter of bringing in what I’ve already written and discussing it. I haven’t written much of it – so I go home and want to write five pages and get it right and that is not writing, it is performing.

What I need is a class on craft. Not where I’m bringing my memoir in every week, but where I’m learning about structure and pacing and organization, things that confuse me and that I don’t, on my own, see when it’s not working.

Ever since this class, I sit at my computer in the grip of anxiety and I can barely write. I’m trying to describe a scene, describe a person, put in sounds and smells and give them what they I think they want to hear and I’m paralyzed. I can’t write like that. What I do – when I’m not pressuring myself because I’m in a class – is just write what I want to write and add what needs to be added after. But now I’m taking what L says in class and looking at all my sentences and not knowing how to make them better, how to be what she wants them to be.

It’s drama. And it’s all in my head.

There are things in class that have been pointed out to me that are really helpful. But in my crazy brain, I think that if I was a good writer I would not have made those mistakes and since I made those mistakes I am therefore not a good writer. It’s perfectly logical.

I’m not sure whose memoir I’m writing any more. Is it mine, or is it the one I think they want to hear?

I am nowhere near ready to workshop my work. I need to sit and write and keep it close. I need to figure out what works for me. Like no more writing on the couch. I have a writing desk. I am serious about this? I will sit at my desk and work. It feels good, because it feels like I’m taking myself seriously.

Part of the problem of the class is that it gets me thinking about the big picture – i.e., getting it to a publisher – when all I want to think about is the scene I’m writing. It’s one scene at a time and I want to spend hours – days – at these scenes. I need to – Philip has died and I am still and always will be working through this. That’s what the importance of the memoir is. I might not be able to write five pages in a week. And as I said, I don’t have to, but I will like a failure if I don’t. Five pages is a lot of pages to get right because it takes me a long time to get it right. And Philip is in every part of it, whether I say his name or not.

Right now, I’m writing about his childhood. I have some of his pictures around me, from when he was a baby through 18. I went on Google maps and pulled up the house we used to live in. I am immersed in the past and it’s starting to shake me. I think what helps is that I go to work and it’s been busy and funny. So much laughing there – so I’ve no time think about anything. Then I go home and turn on my computer and there it is. I’m not complaining. I chose to write this, that means I experience it. But I’m so very sad – he was here, wasn’t he? I have the pictures to prove it. It’s just seeing that childish innocence, then seeing him in a coffin…how do I find the words for that? By sitting and taking the time to write it. However long it takes.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

The First Time

I miss Philip. I miss talking to him. I miss his adoration, even though I feel his love. But I’m human and I miss the human things. Like taking care of him if he wasn’t feeling well. Or telling him secrets because I knew I could trust him and that he was paying attention. And calling him first when something exciting happened. Like the day I went on my first ride at Six Flags.

It was a hot summer day in July and I was at Six Flags in New Jersey, home of Kingda Ka, the tallest and fastest roller coaster in North America.  I came here every year with Natalie and her best friends, Rebecca and Eve. Every year I trailed behind them, carrying assorted bags, cell phones and iPods for them so they could go on the rides while I sat on the bench, waiting. I didn’t go on rides. They scared me. But that year was different. That was the year I’d turned fifty, the year I’d gotten a job after spending 17 years at home with Philip and Natalie. I needed a reason to get of bed that didn’t include driving them somewhere or making three dinners because Philip wanted meat and Natalie didn’t and Phil couldn’t eat black pepper without upsetting his stomach. My therapist said I needed a job for structure. She worried that I was being sucked too far into a hole and I was afraid that the hand she offered to help me out of it was slipping beyond my reach.

So I found a part-time job that quickly turned full-time, and something happened along the way. I replaced the khaki skirts and sensible shoes my husband suggested I buy with skinny jeans tucked into high-heeled ankle boots. I started asking my family to take out the garbage and empty the dishwasher and seethed in fury when they didn’t. I’d trained them well – for years I’d done everything so the fact of my job didn’t suggest to them anything at home needed to change. And much as I was finding less need to sleep away the hours that had felt too long and hard to be awake for, I was still depressed – I was dull, I didn’t have a career, didn’t have a degree, didn’t have a purpose.

But that day life was pulsing in the crowds, the colors, the lights, the blaring loudspeakers and the roaring roller coasters. Overweight people with super-sized drinks held tightly to children with sticky cotton-candy fingers. Giggling teenagers brushed past me, rushing to the next ride. Even here I was on the wrong side of excitement. There was something I wanted, something I needed to know, something in the crowds I normally disdain and the rides I was terrified to go on. I was pulled in their direction and resisting like hell. I thought I was different. I didn’t eat fast food, meat or dessert. I didn’t drink soda, I wasn’t afraid of the dark or of germs and I didn’t wash my hands after I went to the bathroom. I wasn’t afraid of cancer and I wasn’t afraid of death. Death sounded easy, like going to sleep and not having to wake up facing long, dull days when I went out only to buy groceries or pick up my kids from school.

I was restless and sticky as I prowled around the amusement park with the girls. We stopped in front of a purple behemoth of a ride that rose fourteen stories high with a track that twisted and corkscrewed around while riders screamed over its roar. That’s Medusa, Rebecca told me, and asked if I’d go on with them. They knew better than to ask me to ride anything more exotic than the gorgeously painted horses on the carousel, but all morning Rebecca’s been bugging me to at least try and I was secretly hoping she’d convince me.

“I can’t,” I said.

“C’mon,” Rebecca said, giving me a nudge. “Of course you can.”

“No. I can’t. Forget it.”

“You’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Just do it. We’ll be right there with you.”

“But…”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she cut in. She eyed me carefully, then shrugged. “If you really don’t want to…” She turned back to Natalie. My daughter hadn’t said a word, sure that her mother would never go on this ride and wondering why Rebecca would even bother to ask.

I followed them onto the line, where they turned to me.

“You coming?” Rebecca asked.

I don’t know what I’m doing. I think I’m cracking up here.  I’m tired of sitting on the bench, tired of waiting, tired of being afraid and I don’t have the nerve to do anything about it. If I stand here a while, maybe I’ll find it.

“No. But I’ll just stay with you for now.”

Staying meant walking with the girls up the staircase that ended at the platform where Medusa pulled in. I was filled with dread. I didn’t know if I was more afraid of getting on the ride or watching it leave without me. If I didn’t get on that damn ride I’d spend the rest of the day withering under the weight of yet another choice made by ambivalence. But that was the dismal habit of my life and I didn’t think I could break it.

I panicked as what I thought was a distant rumbling turned into a ground-shaking roar. Medusa pulled in and screeched to a stop in front of us. I watched people unbuckling seatbelts and unstrapping harnesses, looking for something in their faces that would tell me what to do. A lifetime of wanting someone to tell me how to live still hadn’t taught me that whatever answer I got wasn’t the one I wanted. I could have called the Almighty down and it still wouldn’t have helped. He’d already given me life; He just forgot to include the operating manual.

“Mom!”

“What?” I ask, startled out of my reverie.

“We’re going on. What are you doing?”

I looked over at the ride in desperation. That’s when I saw him. The chubby little boy who couldn’t have been more than eight, being helped off the ride by his father. He jumped out of his seat as soon as he was able, happily slipped his hand into his father’s and vanished down the staircase on his way, I was sure, to his next thrill. He was living life. He was awake.

I turned back to the girls.

“I’m coming.”

Yes!” screeched Rebecca.

“Are you sure?” asked Natalie anxiously. And with a twist that was only the beginning of what would become an increasingly tense dynamic between us, she became the worrying mother, trying to protect me from making choices she didn’t understand to do things she’d never seen me do.

Once we were seated and strapped in, Medusa came alive with a clang as the metal floor dropped out from beneath us. I tensed as I looked down to where the ground used to be and saw nothing but narrow track. Then with a jerk, we lurched forward. My stomach lept up to my throat.  Medusa’s padded torso brace held my upper body firmly, while my legs dangled loose and dangerously free. We swung around the first curve and headed up the incline. The world was turning white hot as we inched up the slope until the sickening moment when we paused at the apex. Terrified, I did the only thing I could: I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and let Medusa take me where she would.

We were off. Straight down we plummeted, wind batting back my hair, my breasts pressed firmly against the brace. The momentum forced my legs apart with a freedom I’d yet to experience anywhere else. Up we went to loop around, then around again, my back arching to resist the plunge, then slamming against the seat when we raced back up, breathless as we spun upside down, elated as we rose once again. Inside the roaring, I was weightless, flying, careening side to side, tossed upside down, thrust forward yet again, until way too soon we jerked to a stop, then cautiously slid forward to the platform, where we exited on one side so those waiting on line could enter from the other.

Back on the ground, the air was pungent with barbecue and buttered popcorn. In the midst of the crowd I looked up. Kingda Ka rose forty-five stories into the dazzling blue sky before me. Natalie followed my gaze

.“Mom, no. No.

I didn’t argue. She’d gone on that ride before, but she was frightened; I saw it in the intensity of her big green eyes, heard it in the urgency of her voice. She wasn’t quite sure what happened but she had enough for one day. For the moment, I agreed.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

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